Keeping Live Music and Performance Alive in a Covid Lockdown Culture

4.11.20

The Four Fathers’ gig on October 31, 2020, successfully completed before the second Covid lockdown starts on November 5.

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I was preparing to play a gig — yes, an actual gig! — on Saturday evening, with my band The Four Fathers, when news of a second lockdown in England was finally confirmed by the government. It wasn’t surprising, because infection rates had been steadily rising, but the government — as indecisive as ever — had missed the opportunity to impose a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown to coincide with half-term, as recommended by medical experts, and was now, belatedly, announcing a four-week lockdown instead, starting on Thursday, November 5, and lasting until December 2.

Unlike the first time around, though, the government announced that schools and universities were to stay open, even though what are regarded as “non-essential” shops and businesses will be required to shut, imperilling the future of countless small businesses, who had just begun to find their feet, and who must now be facing, in numerous cases, a fatal loss of business in the run-up to Christmas. Even if they are allowed to reopen on December 3, it seems pretty certain that Amazon and a host of other online retailers — many in the “fast fashion” business, and many with dodgy employment practices — will be making a fortune while nailing shut the coffins of high streets across the land.

To impose this kind of sweeping lockdown for an entire month while leaving schools and universities open is exactly the kind of muddled thinking on the government’s part that — even putting aside for a moment their cronyism, corruption, and obsession with incompetent, overpaid corporate service providers to do jobs that should be provided by health professionals — will enrage and alienate people, whilst also failing to actually tackle the problems of rising infection rates.

If we’re not meant to be mingling, to try and avoid spreading Covid, keeping places open where children, teenagers and young adults are permanently thrown into close proximity is idiotic. And to do so while obliging shops and businesses to close, even though most of them have been rigorously practicing social distancing, seems particularly cruel and unnecessary.

What would surely have made the most sense would have been to have a two-week total lockdown, in which schools and universities also close, as well as pubs and restaurants, and shops and other businesses, to stem the virus’s spread much more effectively than this stupidly compromised half-measure, but that evidently isn’t going to happen, as MPs today voted for the four-week plan by 516 votes to 38, with 34 of those voting against being Tory MPs.

The announcement of the second lockdown added a poignancy to our gig on Saturday — the first amplified gig The Four Fathers had played since before Covid-19 first arrived at the start of the year — and a jangle of emotions ranging from anger to frustrated indignation.

We were playing at a community-run theatre and performance space in south London that has been open for the last few months, putting on distanced events for people starved of live culture, as most music venues and theatres have not reopened, despite the opportunity to do so.

This is a situation that is, on one level, understandable, because distancing requirements would mean that, as soon as they opened their doors, they’d immediately start losing money, but there has also, I fear, been a paralysis throughout much of the arts sector, as venues have fought to secure government funding to prevent their extinction, but don’t seem to have understood the urgency with which performers need to perform and audiences need to see live performance — however much streaming has allowed some sort of distanced form of live culture to continue.

Despite the pressure exerted for a bailout for the arts sector, which finally led to the government promising, in July, a £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund, including, as confirmed in October, “£257 million to save 1,385 theatres, arts venues, museums and cultural organisations across England”, we have ended up in a situation where many permanent staff have been furloughed, while the creators themselves — musicians, performers, and all those who enable gigs and plays to take place — have been consigned to the relative penury of Universal Credit; if, that is, they aren’t amongst the unluckiest people of all, who have slipped through every net going and have no means of support other than what they have managed, over the years, to scrimp and save.

From lockdown to Black Lives Matter

In reviewing the situation on the ground, on the eve of this second lockdown, I can only really speak about my social and cultural experiences over the last seven months in the London Borough of Lewisham, where I live — a borough of nearly 300,000 people, equivalent to the population of Hull, Newcastle or Leicester — but I hope it is in some ways instructive.

At first, after the lockdown was introduced on March 23, and everything shut except essential services — involving food, drink, post offices, chemists and a few other businesses — most of us, except those required to travel to work, largely stayed home, although I went out every day on my bike to photograph the deserted capital  — and particularly the unprecedented emptiness of the West End and the City — for my ongoing photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’, where I encountered virtually no one. Most of my social encounters, in these first weeks, were accidental — when I encountered someone I knew out in the street, and we chatted at a distance, or brief but resonant chats with shop assistants.

In time, the lockdown eased, in particular because we had a seemingly never-ending heatwave, and people took their interpretation of lockdown into their own hands, most noticeably by gathering in significant numbers in parks — although generally with at least a moderate awareness of social distancing. That said, I still recall the nervousness with which I visited Hyde Park for a Black Lives Matter protest on June 3, following the murder of George Floyd by US police, when, for the first time in over two months, I was in a crowd of people, which was — after two months of conditioning — unnerving, even though almost everyone was wearing masks.

The Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park, June 3, 2020 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

By the time an even bigger protest took place, outside the US Embassy in Nine Elms, on June 7, I’d overcome my fear of crowds, as, yet again, almost everyone was wearing masks, and it seemed clear that this was the most sensible way to avoid the virus’s spread, and I vividly recall being impressed that, when large gatherings of young people had erupted into life, it had been because of politics, and not simply as a hedonistic response to over two months of the kind of isolation that almost no one had ever previously experienced.

It was around this time — June 15 — that “non-essential” shops were allowed to reopen, with pubs following on July 4, and while these changes resolutely brought the lockdown to an end, live culture was still in extremely short supply, largely for the reasons of economic viability outlined above.

Developing a DIY culture — primarily via young jazz musicians

Instead, those of us fortunate enough to live in an area full of young, creative jazz musicians were entertained in our local parks by jam sessions that fulfilled our need to gather and to play and appreciate music. Although some jams began in early June in Telegraph Hill Park, my first encounter with them was at Chant Down Babylon, a Black Lives Matter-inspired event, featuring a cross-section of some of the same players, all part of south east London’s young jazz community, in my local park.

In an effort to keep disruption to a minimum, and to keep the crowds small, the organisers of the jazz jams proceeded, over the course of the next six weeks, to turn Monday afternoon into the new Saturday night, performing in free-flowing collectives that attracted dozens of players, and grateful audiences, in which they also spoke in advance to members of the local community, liaised with the police, and tidied up afterwards. These were mostly young people, and so rigorous social distancing wasn’t foremost in everyone’s minds, but the organisers scrupulously kept an eye on infection rates in the borough, which were low, and remained low, and concluded, understandably, I think, that we were now in a post-lockdown phase where we could begin to socialise, to entertain and to be entertained, without compromising anyone’s safety.

The last of the weekly jazz jams in my local park, August 3, 2020 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

This situation came to an end in early August, when, first of all, the police shut down the weekly jams, after persistent complaints from one individual, and then the government — taking aim primarily at illegal raves — threatened to impose £10,000 fines on the organisers of unlicensed events, which rather put a dampener on the whole notion of playing in parks, although by this point my own experience of life under Covid was that we were largely doing what was necessary to keep infection rates down, while moderately mingling socially, and also safely enjoying whatever opportunities for live culture were presented.

At the end of August, as the government moved to reduce socialising to groups of six, The Four Fathers and other musicians played acoustically at a small party in our local park, as infection rates in Lewisham remained low, and although my evidence is only personal and anecdotal, I can honestly say that it feels like other factors have caused a rise in infections (in parts of London, but especially elsewhere in the country). The reopening of schools and universities must surely have played a part, along with, I have to say, some of the hedonistic aspects of British drinking culture, as well as the dangers of people travelling abroad and bringing back exotic new strains of the virus when, this summer, we really should all have stayed in the UK.

Despite the closure of the jazz jams in the park, music venues in general were allowed to re-open from mid-August, and a handful of venues — those that were up for putting on socially distanced events, with table seating and restrictions on numbers — started featuring live music, with that particular community theatre I mentioned above offering the jazz jam a new weekly home on Saturday afternoons in September.

Planning for the future

With this second lockdown, however, these shoots of renewed cultural life will again be put on ice, and, with winter arriving, reclaiming the parks isn’t even an option, sadly.

Instead, it seems, we’re going to have to sit out the next month, wondering if it will have the desired effect on infection rates while the schools and universities stay open, and continuing to think outside the box for when venues are allowed to reopen.

Given the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, with no effective track, trace and isolate programme in place, this may become a pattern in our lives for some time to come, as government minister Penny Mordaunt explained yesterday, telling Parliament that, as the Guardian described it, “The UK should be braced for at least a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic and further lockdowns.” Mordaunt said the government was “hopeful of being able to unlock in December but they are being driven by the data”, and warned that “cases would inevitably rise after restrictions are lifted”, with, as she put it, “some scientists expect[ing] a third or more waves of the virus to be managed [with] repeat lockdowns.”

Seeking to quell dissent — particularly from the Tory back-benches, where the government faces persistent unrest from those who only want to prioritise the economy — she stated that, while some critics “argue that the need for future lockdowns is evidence they don’t work but that’s to misunderstand what they are there to do”, the government’s approach “buys us time and is the optimum use of the healthcare we have in the meantime while capacity is built and vaccines are sought.”

Mordaunt’s claims only helped to highlight the fact that the government has now had eight months to build capacity in the NHS, but has not done so, and to wave the prospect of a vaccine (which may or may not happen, but, in any case, will need rigorous testing before being rolled out widely) as a diversion from the government’s failures to develop a functioning track, trace and isolate system to enable society to operate without the shock interventions of lockdowns.

But without private jets to whisk us away to second homes abroad, this is the reality for most of us, and while we need to keep pointing out how shockingly corrupt and inept the government is — and also need reassurances that funding will be provided to tide over all the businesses pushed to the brink of collapse by this next lockdown — we also need to work out where the opportunities will be, when this next lockdown ends, as it will have to, to gather and to express ourselves creatively, and to organise what may, increasingly, be some kind of ongoing DIY culture of creative expression.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from eight years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article – my thoughts on the eve of England’s second Covid lockdown, set to last for a month from November 5, in which, as well as being critical of the government’s typically slow and muddled response (shutting shops and businesses but not schools and universities, for example), I primarily reflect on the importance of live music and other forms of culture, and how they have flickered to life, against all the odds, since Covid hit, as well as how they might resume when this lockdown ends.

    Reviewing cultural life — in south east London at least — since the first lockdown, I mention the gig my band The Four Fathers just played at the weekend, but primarily I discuss the importance of the collectives of young jazz musicians who brought joy and sanity to our lives in jam sessions in local parks throughout the summer, until they were shut down by the police, and then moved to one of the few live venues to reopen — until this latest directive arrived to put what we must all hope is just a temporary halt to the few, but crucial aspects of live culture that have sprung to life in various ways over the last five months.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Rooke wrote:

    Great article Andy.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Paul. One from the heart!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Jane Ecer wrote:

    Excellent.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jane. It’s been a while since I’ve written about the impact of Covid, and I wanted to provide an overview of how it has impacted on live culture, and also to try and remember the sequence of events that led to those wonderful jams in the park, and the small but crucial opportunities for creative expression provided by the brave venues that have resisted the inertia gripping the live culture sector and have reopened. I’m very glad you like it.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s a sobering article about the horrendous impact of this second lockdown for “around 363,000” shops whose business is now regarded as “non-essential”, which are having to close for a month from today. If I could have one wish, it would be that everyone doesn’t rush to buy from Amazon instead – ‘England lockdown extension would be “catastrophic for struggling retailers”‘: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/nov/05/a-lockdown-extension-would-be-catastrophic-for-struggling-retailers

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    An interesting article here about how Covid has affected the music scene in Huddersfield, to get a perspective from outside the capital – ‘Huddersfield musician says all town’s live music venues are under threat’: https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/whats-on/whats-on-news/huddersfield-musician-says-towns-live-19066289

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    The Guardian addressed the crisis afflicting live culture in an editorial on November 6, ‘The Guardian view on live art: irreplaceable energy’, which is worth reading: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/06/the-guardian-view-on-live-art-irreplaceable-energy

    I particularly liked the following assessment of the kind of charged power that performance now has, when it can no longer be taken for granted in a cultural world in which people, previously – or at least those with money – were spoiled for choice: “those performers who have actually managed to stand before an audience have done so with an extraordinary passion and emotional urgency. The shared energy that means a group of strangers catch their breath, or sigh, or laugh as one body, will never be taken for granted again. Nor will the energy that flows between the stage and the audience, between performer and viewer.”

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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